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Mrs. May: I am sure that the matter will be the subject of an interesting debate in Committee. I look forward to considering a Government amendment that clarifies the words in the Bill, which currently state that independent special school places cannot be paid for by a local education authority. If the Secretary of State is saying that that is not his intention--[Interruption.] He remarks that he said what he said, and I accept that, but I suggest that he asks his officials to consider the wording of clause 1. I do not believe that his intention, which I welcome, is reflected by that wording as it currently stands. I look forward to debating the matter further and to considering an appropriate amendment.
As I said, I welcome the Secretary of State's statement about the intention to keep independent special school places available to parents. I trust that he will consider the code of practice with regard to parents' ability to express a preference for an independent special school, as well as to the information that local authorities must make available to parents in respect of the special schools that are suitable for their children, whether they are in the independent or state sectors. I also welcome his comments about the terms of the code of practice in relation to the nature of the statement. Despite the letter that he circulated before Christmas, the issue has continued to cause anxiety among parents. We were previously placed in the difficult position of having to consider the Bill without knowing the content of the code. I am grateful to him for setting out what the Government intend to include in the code to ensure that the ability to specify provision in the statement remains.
As more children are integrated into mainstream education where that is right for them, the number requiring special schools is falling. However, a more worrying process is at work. Local education authorities simply stop statementing children or so drag their feet over statementing that children do not enter special schools. Those schools then close, not because parents have chosen another school but through a process of stealth. That point was specifically made to me by the parents and governors I saw from Alderman Knight special school in Gloucestershire, who said that that was happening in the county.
Parents of children at Kingswode Hoe school in Colchester, whom I met recently with my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), are also concerned about that. In a letter to the Secretary of State, a member of the Kingswode Hoe action group said:
Parents of children who attend special needs schools recognise the difference in education that they have to offer. Many parents may have experienced a failed Mainstream education for their special needs children who then subsequently flourish in a Special needs school setting. There is no need for radical change. Surely the task in hand would be to improve even more on what we already have rather than set a policy in motion which may adversely affect these young more vulnerable members of our society."
Our dispute with the LEA concerns:
The right of parents to choose the most appropriate type of provision for their child.
The right of each child to be educated in an environment in which they feel secure and can realise their potential.
We also do not expect miracles. We do, however, expect that after several years of little progress and often misery for the child, it should be recognised that this provision"--
Surely it can be of little surprise to anyone that parents are united in support of these excellent schools in which we have seen our children flourish, when so many of us have direct experience of the failure of the alternative on offer."
I fully accept that, over the years, some children with special educational needs and some disabled children who would have flourished in the mainstream have not had the opportunity to go into mainstream education and develop their potential in the way that was right for them. However, in remedying that wrong, we must make sure that we do not create another wrong for those children for whom special schools are the appropriate provision. Ensuring that that choice is available is extremely important.
We must also ensure that the needs and best interests of the child are at the heart of our actions. The wishes of the parents must be accommodated in the best interests of the child when it is right for that child to attend a special school.
I want briefly to touch on two issues. The first is the cost implications of the Bill, which have been referred to in a number of interventions. The Government have given the impression that putting the Bill into practice will have few cost implications, but if its consequence is a significant shift towards more children with special educational needs being educated in the mainstream, there certainly will be a cost implication, and inclusion without the necessary resources is less likely to work. That is not in the interests of the child and it will also put enormous strain on teachers.
As a result, a child with special educational needs or other children in the class may not receive the quality of education that they deserve. I do not want the Bill to raise parents' expectations only for them to be dashed because the resourcing and funding needed to make it work properly are not available and because the Government have not made a proper assessment of the implications of the cost of that legislation.
Secondly, we must also ensure that teachers are involved in decisions on whether educating a particular child in the mainstream will affect the education of other children. It is important that teachers' professional judgment is involved in that decision and in making such assessments.
Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood): I welcome the Bill with great enthusiasm for two simple reasons--it will strengthen the right to mainstream education for disabled children and children with special educational needs, where their parents wish it, and, under part II, it will outlaw discrimination in education on the ground of disability. Thus, it will put right a major flaw in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995--namely, the exclusion of education from part III.
The objective for us all is to create a society in which everyone can participate fully as equal citizens, but we have a long way to go in respect of disabled people, who are twice as likely to be out of work and to have no formal qualifications. Education provision for disabled children and disabled adults is central, and appropriate education in an environment free of discrimination is essential, as it is the foundation on which so much else rests.
Therefore, I welcome the great changes being introduced by this radical and progressive measure. I congratulate the Government wholeheartedly on the Bill, the high priority they have given it and on the extensive consultation. It has given rise to much debate and my files, like those of every other hon. Member, are full of comments from the detailed consultation exercises.
The Government have done the most thorough job imaginable and the consultation has secured overwhelming support for the Bill. Therefore, I was genuinely saddened and not a little angry to read the amendment tabled by the Leader of the Opposition, which asks hon. Members to decline to give the Bill a Second Reading. I know of no organisation in the country, apart from the Conservative party, that wants the measure to be blocked tonight.
The special education consortium, which represents 247 bodies including the major disability organisations, parents' groups, children's groups and local authorities, says, "We want this Bill and we want it now." I have the privilege to be secretary of the all-party disablement group. I therefore checked our minutes carefully and the SEC told us that this is the Bill that
"It is vital that the Bill becomes law as soon as possible."